Jewish Soul in a Jazz Setting

Steven Bernstein puts the sex appeal back in traditional Jewish music by adding an Afro-Cuban mood

I've always been Jewish but only recently activated my tribal membership. Now, for 24 hours each Friday, from sunset to sunset, I do not think or speak about work. I try to keep my thoughts positive. I rest, reflect, and think about God. I listen to "Diaspora Soul."

Tears of amazement ran down my cheeks the first time I heard Steven Bernstein's "Diaspora Soul." The tunes are traditional liturgical songs you might hear at any Jewish wedding, but they are executed with Cuban instrumentation-stripped-down piano and bongos--and Cuban flair. Bernstein's theory is that the two traditions share a common bass pattern--that frenetic, swirling line that grounds the


Although it was a moody, rainy Saturday afternoon, I was also smiling, thinking of happy, retired Jewish grandparents doing the cha-cha in Miami, blissfully unaware of their ties to the Afro-Cuban soul. Bernstein's Gulf Coast Theory, as he calls the connections he makes, is fully supported by "Diaspora Soul," a gorgeous, sexy, and completely spiritual CD crafted by special request for John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series, on Zorn's brave, jazz-plus label, Tzadik.


Bernstein is a slide trumpeter, an ex-Lounge Lizard, collector of cantorial recordings from the '20s, and master of Sex Mob, a jazz group that regularly plays to frenzied crowds at the New York club Tonic, and has given us Solid Sender and Din of Inequity. When we spoke on the phone recently, Bernstein got out his horn and blew a slow, groovy "Chosen-Kalle Masel Tov" for me, demonstrating exactly how Louis Armstrong belongs to the Jewish wedding band and bar mitzvah tradition, just as much as my uncle Buddy or your Aunt Sarah.

Growing up in Berkeley in the '60s, Bernstein recalls, "there weren't many Jews around, so building a Jewish identity wasn't easy." Luckily, his family attended a fairly hip, progressive temple, observing Shabbat semi-regularly. He speaks warmly of the congregation's spirituality, in contrast with what he perceives as a much colder, East Coast vibe that continues to be a turn-off for him. In sixth grade, Bernstein went to school sporting a huge, golden Star of David--the kind of over-the-top rope chain worn by old-school rappers--in solidarity with Jews who were being denied passage from the now-former Soviet Union.

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